'Abusing, disinterested or impotent' - an insider sums up the Irish priesthood

Professor Mary McAleese is pro-vice-chancellor of Queen's University, Belfast, director of its Institute of Legal Studies and a forthright defender of traditional Catholic values. Over the years she has been closely associated with the Catholic hierarchy, serving as a member of important church delegations.

Yet talking now about the state of her church, and its handling of matters such as the Brendan Smyth affair, she rails against "a shabby bleak procession of Pontius Pilate lookalikes, abusing priests, disinterested abbots, impotent cardinals and unempowered parents".

Taken out of context, this sounds remarkably like a quotation from the Reverend Ian Paisley. But this is criticism from within the church, from someone who, like many lay Catholics, feels betrayed by the institution.

Of the Irish hierarchy she says: "They have very old, rather seigneurial, magisterial ways of dealing with problems, but the world now is infinitely more democratic, infinitely more intelligent, more questioning and challenging than the world they're equipped for.

"We're living through a time when we're actually seeing the tears at the seams. The days of automatic deference have given way, not quite to automatic contempt, but in some areas close to that. I know a number of priests now who will tell you that there are parts of Dublin and of Belfast where, when they walk through them, they get catcalls, they get called names."

Professor McAleese criticises the bishops' response to the Brendan Smyth case. "I listened to the cardinal say there would be no hiding place for people like Brendan Smyth, but the truth of the matter is that he's still saying Mass in prison. I find that deeply offensive - that on one level there is a hiding place within the church."

Her principal concern is for the many victims who suffered child abuse at the hands of Brendan Smyth and other clerics. "Here we are, a huge pastoral ministry - if the church exists for anything at all it is to bring the love of God to people. Where was that exhibited in the way the church responded to the complainants in these cases? Did the priests go to their homes, did they talk to the parents, did they talk to the children, did they bring pastoral care? I don't believe they did.

"I get the feeling the bishops think that if they surrender these people to the authorities it will be all right. Well, actually it won't - it won't be all right. There's an enormous body of work to be done in terms of letting the hurt and the wounded know that the church is at their service."

In her broader view of the church she reflects the demands from a once- passive laity that it should have a real say in policy matters, which have been the preserve of Rome, the bishops and the priests. "The latter years of the current pontificate have seen a closing of doors, a banging down of bunker lids," she says. "I see very little sign that the structures of the church are prepared to engage in anything like the kind of dialogue that we want. Their kind of discussion is an 18th-century type where the master speaks and the rest remain silent. Today that simply will not do."